Dutch "hex signs," in their own words.
The following quotations relate to Pennsylvania Dutch
or German Hex Signs. The fellow speaking is a Pennsylvania Dutch
or German farmer. His story (and the quotations) are presented in
a fictional novel about the Pennsylvania Fancy Dutch (or non-Amish)
community. The book is the second in a series written by
Ronald Ray Schmeck. This one is titled FURTHER FROM THE
MIDDLE, A PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH STORY OF LIFE.
"Arsenic had paused to examine the red paint on the
outside of the barn. He was trying to decide whether it needed to
be repainted. He concluded that it would be O.K. for another two
or three years. It usually lasted at least ten years. The
old Pennsylvania Dutch had been mixing their own paints for over two
hundred years. The Berks area was full of iron oxide deposits
that yielded beautiful red, yellow, orange, and dark brown pigments
that were mixed with gum resins from fruit tree sap, boiled linseed
oil, and buttermilk, all provided by nature. These paints often
outlasted those commercially available.
There was a huge hex sign, eight feet in diameter,
on the end of the barn Arsenic was inspecting. It was bordered in
yellow and featured two overlapping red stylized birds, or distelfinks,
on a field of purple. It too had been painted with homemade paint
and seemed to be in excellent condition. Decorated “hex barns,”
as the tourist’s called them, usually indicated a “fancy” Dutch
homestead rather than an Amish one. The Amish were called “plain”
for a reason. They didn’t paint decorations all over their barns.
Regan walked up while Arsenic was staring up at the
“You expecting some hexerei?”
Arsenic chuckled and said, “Nah. Chust checkin
da paint. Dem hex signs doan haff nothin ta do vith hexerei
“Well the tourists think they do.”
Arsenic simply shrugged and said, “Yah vell!”
In fact, the arguments connecting “hex signs” and
Pennsylvania Dutch hexerei, or witchcraft, are a little airy.
Some traders told tourists that the colorful, round geometric designs
were a way to avoid disease and accidents in farm animals if they were
verhexed by hexerei, such as witches' spells and their evil eye.
But the circular patterns just seem to be a form of folk art, not
terribly different from the fraktur art on official Pennsylvania Dutch
documents like eighteenth and nineteenth centuries birth and babtismal
certificates, called taufschein. The birds and flowers used by
fraktur schriften artists are similar to the images on hex signs.
Painted kitchenware, or toleware, also tends to include such images.
“Herbie Goodhart painted dat.” Arsenic said,
pointing with his nose toward the hex sign. “He verks dahn at
Hank Dienst’s body shop in Fleetvoot.”
Looking up at the sign, Regan said, “I thought Ruby
said Jake Zook painted that?”
“Nah. Not dat von.”
During the 1940’s, Jacob Zook started producing
beautiful hex signs in Paradise, Pennsylvania. The early barn art
had been painted directly on barns, but Zook made it portable and
brought the cost down by painting on a slab of wood that tourists could
take back home with them as a souvenir when they visited Pennsylvania
Little hex signs started to appear as logos on
products such as pretzel cans. As the popularity of the art form
spread, the story that it was a defense against devilry seemed to
spread right along with it.
The troublesome woodpecker that had taken a liking
to Arsenic’s barn showed up again and started hammering within ten feet
of Arsenic and Regan as they were talking.
Arsenic looked at the bird and yelled,
“Geh’veg. Get ought’a here!” And he slapped his hand on the
barn wall several times to scare it off."
"The early Pennsylvania Dutch did hold some unusual superstitions with
regard to their barns. Legends suggested that the shingles should
nailed on while the moon is waning, or they would leak. Also,
believed the larger the barn a man built, the more good luck he would
have. But then, of course, a big barn could be a favorite target
the evil eye of a neighbor, as well as his jealousy.
In Reading, in the year 1820, John George Hohman
influential German-language magical recipe book filled with spells,
procedures, and yes, even recipes. The title was Der lang
Schatz und Haus Freund. English translations were later printed
Carlisle and Harrisburg, with one titled Pow-Wows, or The Long-Lost
Hohman was an artist who specialized in
and illustrating precious official documents such as birth and marriage
certificates. Some say he developed an interest in hoodoo by
over his documents. He eventually acquired quite a collection of
folksy and wizardly information, presented in his book.
For example, a wart might be treated by rubbing the
wet half of a
cut potato on it and then burying the potato. As the potato
the wart was supposed to fall off. Also, you were not supposed to
tickle a child less than a year old, because it might cause it to
stutter. And then, of course, there was the thing about burying a
calf under the eaves of the barn roof, or nailing a dog skull to the
rafters. Indeed, the use of a horseshoe for good luck started in
Pennsylvania Dutch barn.
In 1929, teenagers in York, Pennsylvania, were
accused of murdering
a man while attempting to steel a copy of Hohman’s book of
It was said that the three boys were also trying to obtain a lock of
the victim’s hair to use for turning around a hex the boys believed to
have been put on them by the supposed witch and murder victim, Nelson
Rehmeyer. The kids thought Rehmeyer used Hohman’s book to learn
The trial got international attention because of the
witchcraft, and because it was occurring two-hundred-and-fifty years
after the notorious Salem, Massachusetts witch trials where people were
actually burned at the stake.
One famous lawyer, outraged by the stiff sentences
handed down at
the York trial, wrote articles in the national media saying that
education was better than harsh punishment to deter crimes like the one
in York, Pennsylvania. The lawyer’s name was Clarence Darrow, and
was famous for having defended the high school teacher John T. Scopes,
accused of illegally teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution to Tennessee
public school students. Anyway, Clarence Darrow helped draw
to Dutch superstitions."
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